My friend will get another degree next week. She will become a BA, MA, MA or, as we fondly call her, a Bamama.
This latest degree will raise her academic temperatures and the quality of her resume. In fact, as of June 4, my friend Bamama will become officially qualified to be unemployed in yet a better class of jobs.
Let me explain. When she got a BA in philosphy four years ago at the cost of $12,000 (them was the bargain basement days), Bamama had the choice between becoming an overeducated waitress or an overeducated office worker. So she became an overeducated day-camp counselor and went back to school.
The next year, for $4,000, she got a degree in library science. Now, qualified as a librarian, she won a job as an overeduated part-time library assistant. In her off-hours, she become an overqualified clerk at a cheese counter. Rumors that she arranged the cheddar according to the Dewey Decimal System were greatly exaggerated.
In any case, her course was clear. Before she entirely coated her brain as well as her arteries with brie, she went back to school. Now, $5,000 later, she is qualified not only as a librarian, but as a school librarian, teacher, administrator, etc., for a school system in need of an efficient, caring, well-educated Bamama. No such luck or, rather, no such system.
So Bamama has done the only logical thing: applied for and been accepted for aPhd program. With that degree, Bamamaphd, three years older and deeper in debt, would be qualified as a college professor and might therefore be able to find a job as an overqualified school librarian.
She had, you see, followed the life pattern of Woody Allen, who says that success has meant that he is now turned down for dates by a better class of women. Bamama may be particularly adroit at choosing a career track on which 90 percent of the stations have been closed. But the problem is not uniquely hers.
There are more than one million Americans getting bachelor's degrees this year, more than 300,000 getting master's degrees and more than 32,000 getting doctorates.
They and/or their parents are up to their ears in debt. The economy is up to its ears in the overeducted under-employed.
Eighty percent of the recent college graduates, we are told, are doing work that was once done quite capably by people without college degrees. The point is that you don't need the degree to do the job. But nowadays you do need the degree to get the job.
College graduates may be getting the jobs once filled by non-graduates, but they are not automatically filling the spots once guaranteed by a degree. There is more educational competition at every level. In fact, by 1985, 2.5 college graduates will be competing for every college" job.
This is the name of the 1980s war game called Defensive Education. As economist Lester Thurow put it: "As the supply of more highly educated labor increases, individuals find that they must improve their own education qualification simply to defend their current income position. If they do not go to college, others will and they will not find their current job open to them."
This is described as the "tiptoe syndrome" in Michael Harrington's book "Decade of Decision." At any parade, the people in the second row stand on tiptoe to see over the heads of those in the front row. Then everyone else behind them stands on tiptoe, just to stay in the same position.
As more and more people go to college, a degree no longer guarantees who will get ahead. But the lack of a degree still can determine who will fall behind. We keep raising the education threshold to the job market.
This is the sort of new truth that makes us feel trapped and cynical and furious. Trapped into paying a fortune for advance but for defense. Cynical about the real motivation for "Higher Education.
Meanwhile, even as we play the game, the gap between our educational level and job level grows and is filed with the discontent of the "underemployed."
Remember the movie "Goodbye Columbus"? There was a moment when the father, who owns a trucking business, shakes his head watching his son work. Finally he sighs, "Four years of college, and he can't load a truck."
Just a few years ago, that was funny. But at the current rate of the education escalation war, the kid won't even be able to get to tryout without a PhD.